I’m coming to LA! I said.
Let’s ride bikes! my friend Ronald said.
Bikes! my friend Andria said.
Race bikes in a wine cask! this guy Peter said.
Occasionally you get a work trip that goes somewhere really nice, like southern California. I have quite a few friends there, and like to take the opportunity to spend time together whenever possible. Friend Ronald and I make the effort to ride motorcycles together when we can, and my recent trip to Long Beach and Compton was no exception. We were privileged with loaners from Kawasaki and the Motorcycle Industry Council – I spent my day putting the new Ninja 300 through its paces and Ronald bounced around on a nicely kitted Versys. We ended up riding with a bunch of friends, new and old.
My trip started on arrival at SNA where I picked up a Ford Fiesta with the laziest torque converter in the world. Oh, you want to accelerate? Let me think about that. Absolutely killed the fun part of the car, even in sport mode. My gf Suzie had warned me about taking the 15 (the north route) and suggested the south route instead. I peeked at the map ahead of time – the south route was CA74, the Ortega Highway. While hardly an Alpine run, it’s a tight, twisty run over a 2665′ pass that takes you from the coast to the valley and on toward the desert. Roughly 20 miles of fun, even in the recalcitrant Fiesta.
I arrived in Wildomar and was met not just by Suzie, but friends Teri and Richard! A great surprise for me. We dined at a Mediterranean restaurant and shortly after, I flopped over, sound asleep in a nice, comfy bed. I needed to be out of the house at 0530 in the morning to head back over the Ortega to meet my riding group.
I was joined by friends Ronald and Andria at the Motorcycle Industry Council, home also to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Andria had arranged for the loan of two Kawasaki motos for Ronald and I – the delightful Ninja 300 for me, and a Versys 650 for him. Thankfully the Versys had big panniers, because we couldn’t get the seat off the Ninjette so I could mount my tank bag, and Andria’s beautiful Indian Scout had no storage, either. We teased Ronald a bit about carrying two women’s purses. From the MIC, we headed off to Schubert North America to pick up Peter Meade and his big GS. Peter had arranged a day loan of Schubert’s C3Pro Women for me to test out. I’m desperately in need of a new helmet, so…… He also had arranged for us to visit MotoDoffo at the Doffo family vineyard near Temecula.
We headed out the way I’d come in – over the Ortega. Every road looks different on a bike. No matter that I’d come over it in a car, all I’d learned was the basic layout. On the bike, the twisties took on new looks and lines. The little Ninja was flick-flick the whole time, limited more by its rider than its mechanicals. We stopped at the top of the road at the Overlook, a classic bikertreffpunkt like I used to go to in Germany. Tons of gorgeous sportbikes everywhere, and a great view of Lake Elsinore.
We headed down into the valley to Temecula for a late breakfast at the Swing Inn. It was filling and yummy. We discussed the next phase of the ride – we would visit MotoDoffo, a collection of older racing bikes displayed at the Doffo family vineyard. We would also meet Suzie, Teri, and Richard. It turned out that Suzie knew the Doffo family through her experience in racing and wine, and if Marcelo wasn’t home, she’d rope son Damian into taking us around. We rode out of Temecula into the sun and wine country.
Arriving at Doffo, we parked and began wandering around while Peter hunted down the family. Suzie&Co arrived and introductions were made. From there, it was BIKES!
The Doffo family have been racing motorcycles and participating in the racing community for multiple generations. Once the winery was up and running, they decided to install a homage to 1970s motorcycles and mototechnology in the form of a museum. Featuring everything from your basic SuperCub to a big cube KZ, it’s a love letter to two wheels with autographed pictures from Ducati. My favorite bit was a light-up sitting Bibendum figure, as I have now seen two of them and am convinced that they are real. I love Bib and all things Bib.
Damian Doffo guided us around the display and pointed out some of the more significant bikes, including a particularly rare early Ducati owned by his father. I gawked at the parts in a display case. We learned about the Doffo family’s experiences racing both bikes and cars, and I chatted up Damian about our shared experience in the 24hrs of LeMons. Imagine that, two LeMons racers in a room full of bikes. We tried valiantly to explain it all to the others, but I guess you only get the LeMons if you get it.
We visited the back shop, where the restorations take place in between pressings. More Ducati, including a Ducati rototiller (!), which is right up there with MI friend Ben’s Lamborghini orchard tractors. A lap around the dirt loop outside of the ship (in a golf cart) had us holding on for dear life.
Richard led us back to the Ortega on a beautiful back road around the “back” side of town, climbing up and over a mountain range that reminded me more of the Angeles Crest than the Ortega. It was over too quickly – we found ourselves back at the Lookout at the end of the day. From there, we decamped to the MIC office to hand over the keys and retrieve our purses, and wound ourselves down from the joy of a great day of riding.
My day ended with a nice, quiet tapas dinner with Ronald in Long Beach. It was a perfect start to my week of training in California, something I apparently need to do a lot more of!
The venerable Ninjette gets a re-do and earns its place in the books all over again. Photography by Ronald Ahrens.
I was headed to LA for some work training, so I started calling friends to see who wanted to hook up and hang out for a while. One thing led to another and the prospect of borrowing bikes got floated. Then, a chance meeting with the US rep from Schubert and a ride plan started to take shape. This is where it sometimes goes to hell, instead, it went closer to heaven: 2665ft closer, the notch at the top of the Ortega Highway in California.
The newest bearer of the Ninja name is a little parallel twin displacing 300ccs of volume. There is nothing about this bike that is big – from the exhaust ports that are barely an inch (25mm) in diameter, to the seat height at about 29″, to the standard riding position is almost sitting up for my 5’6″ frame. Even the graphics are small. The whole bike screams starter. And you know what? That is entirely ok. Because small means party time in Kawasaki-speak.
I admit up front that I consider myself a sort of lover of small bikes. I used to own a CBR250R that I considered illegal levels of fun, and currently turf my lawn with a beat-up old KL250G Super Sherpa. Smaller is lighter, more nimble, and easier to overpower. I am in charge of the bike, not the reverse. The little 300 is a logical step forward on the itty bitty bike path.
Kawasaki lent me the Ninja 300 through the Motorcycle Industry Council and I put 200 miles on it over the course of a day, exploring the Ortega Highway and Temecula wine country. Schubert North America lent me a C3Pro Women helmet to test out while exploring the desert on the Ninja.
The Ninja 300 is, despite its very sporty looks, a standard. The rider takes a slight lean forward, just enough to feel your core working to hold position. It’s a natural fit for my 5’6″ frame, my 32″ legs are more than enough to have both feet down and some air under my butt when standing over the bike. This means sure stops and standing while waiting for lights to turn green. The controls are sized for average to smaller hands, although my big mitts are not the best measure – I wear a men’s XL glove simply to get the length I need in the fingers. The seat is surprisingly comfortable for a stock plank, far better than the foam brick on my old CBR250R and wide/shapely enough to offer decent butt support and comfort for longer (2hr+) rides.
The transmission is a weak point – the six speed has the traditionally smooth shifting I associate with Kawi and their wonderful positive neutral finder, but first gear is completely useless and the entire range could do with a drop and new top cog to take the green machine up to modern highway speeds with a bit less buzz. Riding home, I became convinced that I’d broken something when I was unable to shift up at the behest of the upshift light – it’s apparently not locked out in sixth. I eventually had to downshift and figured out that everything was fine in the gearbox.
Schubert’s top-of-the-line ladies’ lid is an engineering marvel. Lighter than my RPHA-Max from HJC and closer-fitting, it is also quiet and cool. Several vents and a visor that will remain cracked open provide excellent air flow. The wide and tall eyeport has plenty of room for glasses. I’m stretching to find things that haven’t been said about this great helmet – even at the price, it’s as good as it gets – if it fits, of course. The inverted cheek pads modify the interior shape, bringing it closer to the female bone structure. This helps to keep the helmet in place on the rider’s head. Proper fit is best assessed by a professional, and after fitting by the Schuberth rep, I found that I wear a different size in Schubert than HJC. No surprise as head shape does more the determine helmet fit and comfort than head circumference, which is best used to size the shell.
The instrument cluster is offset and features a huge tach with a digital speedometer and assorted warning lights. The lights are clear and bright in daylight and easy to see. The information on the panel flows and is clear and legible. A multi-bar fuel gauge does require the bike to be mostly level to read properly – tilted back down a hill leads to false full readings. The bike returned roughly 60mpg in spirited riding.
The wheels are cast and painted to match the bodywork, in this case, black. Colored deco strips add some attractive and sporty highlights. The wheels are fit with IRC tyres that I was never comfortable with on my CBR, on the heavier and slightly more powerful Ninja, they performed satisfactorily and I would consider leaving them on for the wear cycle. They lent reasonable plant on the dry pavement and were generally predictable under load. I didn’t push them to breaking loose, my previous experiences with them weren’t good enough to test that out. Regardless, the interface with the road is competent and fully acceptable for the power generated by the 300cc mill.
The motor is free-revving and buzzy, with the drama-free response typical of parallel twins. The engine suffers the transmission poorly – it’s eager to go and the gearset does it no favors with 1st gear hitting all of 20mph at 9K. The torque is more than sufficient to give up on first completely and treating the drivetrain as a five-speed rewards the rider with a very willing bike. A major plus are the brakes – I needed nearly no adjustment to my rote braking behaviour to bring the Ninja to heel. Smooth and effective, they held up well throughout the whole trip and during several runs up and down a steep section of the Ortega where my co-riders and I stopped for pictures. I place a lot of stock in braking, and it was quite a relief not to have to even think about it.
The entire experience is pure Kawasaki and that’s a very good thing. The need to differentiate in the small displacement segment is high and the CBR300R is serious competition. Honda’s absolutely drama-free entry is just as capable, but lacks some of the little quirks that make the new Ninjette more of a family member than a hired hand. BMW and KTM leverage their more exotic packages to cater to smaller segments of the small bike market and are not ready for prime time in the starter bike market. The baby Kawi is a solid entry and should be considered by all small bike buyers.
I’m a moto-commuter about ten months a year, in Detroit, no less. My job requires me to work with two sites outside of the Detroit area, so sometimes, my commute involves some distance. Most recently, it found me trying to figure out how to manage a site visit that needed to happen immediately after a long weekend trip to the Dragon.
My trip to the Dragon is an annual affair that I run either with a group of other riders I know or with my old car club, most of whom I have known for fifteen-plus years. Both groups hole up in a rental lodge for a few nights and run day excursions to the various excellent roads around the area. This year, we visited Helen, GA, and ran the Dragon, the Moonshiner (to Fontana Dam and Bridal Veil Falls), and the Blue Ridge Parkway. My necessary stop at work afforded me the opportunity to ride northbound somewhat east of my usual track and I added in NC 209, the Rattler, and the Cumberland Gap tunnel on US 25E. This turned the normal 200 miles of distance into about 1200 miles.
One of the biggest challenges of extreme moto-commuting is packing. Most recreational motorcycling trips that I take involve at least some camping, so my kit needs to include a 25L dry bag full of camping gear. I take a 1pp tent from REI, an appropriate sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a few odds and ends depending on my eating plans. I’ve recently discovered state park campgrounds, where for $25 you can get a decently private spot that includes power and flush toilets. I added a 10′ extension cord to my kit, along with some USB LED lighting for my tent. High living! But the camping kit wasn’t the big issue – it was the fact that one of my side cases was full of laptop, work notes, and the assorted safety gear required by your average garden-variety manufacturing site. Without that side case free for extra gloves and other motorcycle-oriented PPE (personal protection equipment), I was down to one box for clothing – the usual three days of liners and undies and a pair of sneaks fits fine, but now I needed to add two days of work clothes on top. Thank goodness for mechanical latches and locks, otherwise I think my poor old Vario-box would have exploded.
One thing I didn’t expect was the food challenge brought on by the packing challenge – I have Celiac disease and usually would pack a fair amount of gluten-free snacks and bread in my now-full-of-laptop side case. Normally, this is offset by being in the Meijer-zone – Meijer is a Michigan-based market chain that is a very reliable source of all kinds of allergen-free food and have stores all over the upper midwest. Instead, I found myself hopping from convenience store to convenience store, trying to find edibles that fit with my diet. Leaving Kentucky, land of no highway rest stops, I entered Tennessee and discovered the glorious Cheesewich. Behold, the ultimate in biker lunches: the only thing missing was a Ducati-themed SP bottle. Sadly, I did not find any more Cheesewiches along my route. It tasted a lot better than it looked.
Spending roughly 1000 miles of my extreme commute having fun put me in a great mood for work – no matter what plague and misery were awaiting me, I was full of miles of sun and rain, pavement and dirt, and it all showed. I call my I’ve-been-out-riding look “homeless construction worker chic”. Throw in the unbelievable amount of bugs stuck to everything and it’s not what I would call a particularly professional look, even if it is a contagiously happy one. Thankfully, the presence of a motorcycle seems offset the ugly for most people. Several of my coworkers ride, so my arrival by bike is something of an event and gets the site ready for whatever it is that I am there to do. The bike seems to turn most of the staff into little kids, and it’s a welcome change from the serious nature of our work.
A big advantage of the extreme moto-commute is that it ends in work, which means hotel room, and usually a pretty decent one. Hotels mean two things – warm and dry. In my case, it really means “dry out the camping gear before you put it back in the closet”. Convenient, it is. If you are really with it, you book a hotel with a laundry so you can catch up on wash before getting home. The travel agency can get confused when you are hundreds of miles from home and have no transportation booked.
My trip ended up going really well, with a very uneventful final 200 mile leg of boring old I75N. The main thing I would do differently is ship my work gear to my site and take more food. I’m still hungry.
Are you ready for an extreme moto-commute?
I mentioned that I’ve been riding the Sherpa a lot lately due to a shoulder injury, and it’s been a total blast for the most part. Just not the grooved pavement part.
Last year, I fitted the little green bike with IRC TR8 tyres front and back. They are a good medium duty knob that is regarded well for its on-pavement performance and durability in addition to its very good dirt and gravel chops. I like them a lot on gravel and on grass (yes, I ride on the lawn), and find them to be pretty decent on asphalt.
Unfortunately, a large amount of Michigan seems to be grooved concrete, and knobs and grooves do not seem to get along well.
I initially played off the serious instability of the bike on the tyres being knobs, but the truth is, the TR8s are not a particularly squirmy tyre. If they were, I’d notice the issue on all roads. I finally traced it to the grooves when a colleague noted that my rear tyre was “moving around an awful lot” after following me on I696 one morning. Another day, I had a braking “incident” where I locked the rear while stopping for a red light and the little bike became extremely squirrely. I revisited that lane later and found that it was not only grooved, but the grooves were full of silt and sand. My guess is that there was just enough low traction material to keep the knobs from biting the grooves, and that led to the lockup. I rode it out and did not hit the car in front of me.
I suppose that the lightness of the Sherpa is interfering with me feeling how much the bike actually is moving under me. Apparently, I’m becoming rather used to it and no longer bothered at all by the extra motion. This is a big step forward for me as a rider – I’ve had some fear about handling low traction surfaces and now I find out that I’ve been living with an entire low traction bike for the last two months.
The role of traction* in the stability of a motorcycle is interesting. Too much at the wrong time, and you are flying over your bike in a high-side dismount. Too little and you are hitting the ground in a low-side fall. Somewhere in between (and a pretty big section of in-between, thankfully) is enough traction to stay upright and move forward. Control of the traction force is up to the rider – one can spin up the rear in a nice, smoky burnout, or manage rolling at just the right speed to keep the rear tracking around a hairpin. That burnout is a roost in dirt, where the surface determines more of the traction characteristics than the tyre does. The knobs on knobby tyres allow the tyre to dig into the surface and grip more of it, trying to catch it and lock into it. Roosting occurs when the surface is torn up and thrown into the air. Obviously, this is a bit challenging to do with concrete, so the tyre gets torn up and thrown into the air instead. You can think of the difference between street and dirt riding in terms of which surface is the primary sacrificial one – while dirt tyres do wear (and quickly!), the surface takes more of a beating than the tyre does. This is why motorbikes are often banned from outdoor recreation areas – too much damage to the trails.
Riding in a situation where the traction is not at the operator’s complete beck and call can be unsettling, at least until it is ingrained into the rider’s personal physics. The old term “backing it in” refers to breaking traction at the rear while sliding the bike around a turn. Done properly, this is a very controlled use of traction (or the lack of it) to the rider’s advantage. It requires the rider to have significant comfort in the lower traction environment. One needs to feel confident that they can successfully hook back up and ride it out, without hopping over the line on the track that leads to a high-side. Where better to learn this than on knobby tyres in the sand or loose dirt?
All of this musing here is about me coming to terms with low traction. I’m finally starting to really get a feel for it. The baby GS has great Metzler Tourance tyres on and they are profoundly stable under many conditions. Add in the bike’s rudimentary ABS (it’s fine, quit bitching), and the bike is rather insensitive to traction condition transitions that would send the Sherpa and its knobs into orbit. Me along with it, too. Logging more seat time on the little bike with its little traction is helping me understand what low traction feels like and how to not only manage it, but relax and enjoy it. I’m not sure I’m ready to slide all 425# of the Beemer around, but I find that I’m getting less and less freaked out by the wandering rear end of the Sherpa each time I get on it, and what I used to consider frightening wobbles and stepouts are now just situations that require me to moderate my control inputs. I’m thinking less about everything associated with low traction now and riding it all more. Grooved pavement is no longer a navigation avoidance parameter.
Yikes. I might actually become a decent motorcyclist one of these days.
*Traction is friction in the presence of rolling, and is related to friction by the differential speeds of the two surfaces as described by the slide/roll ratio. I’m happy to pontificate on that, it’s kind of my thing.
gearchic is doing an awesome job busting the myths of seat heights of motorcycles. I want to go a step further and talk about how seat heights come to be, and why this sucks for smaller riders.
I own two of the most female-friendly bikes that exist – the enduring BMW F650GS single and the Kawasaki Super Sherpa. Both bikes came about their ladies’ bonafides in a round-about way – they were both designed for smaller men.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Design for a smaller population and the smaller population will buy. It’s not quite so simple, because often, a bike has to be made for many sizes of rides, and as the US market is largely made of up large guys, we get bikes designed with large guys in mind. Tweaking a frame for various body geometries is not an easy task, what is given to the torso must come off the arms, the knees suffer at the expense of the hips, and you can see where that is going.
Think of cars for a minute – the designer of the retro Mustang was fired because a 6′ tall male did not fit in the back seat. The average car seat is adjustable to fit everything from a 4’6″ granny to a 6’6″ football player. That can’t happen on a motorcycle, because the degrees of freedom are far fewer and the hard points more numerous.
Big motorcycles happen because of the way the target rider is chosen. The average American male is around 5’10” and weighs something like 200 pounds. The average female is 5’5″ and closer to 145 pounds. Five inches and fifty pounds is a lot on a motorcycle. And if you’re on the smaller side, it’s a lot more.
Kawasaki developed the Super Sherpa for use as a delivery bike in various “second world” markets – places that are mostly first world, but have enough third world sections so as to make life difficult. It was to fit in under the KLX250 and allow Kawi to go after markets where the riders were smaller, but still needed the flexibility and durability of the KLX250. The electric starter, lower seat height, and softer suspension made the bike much more accessible, and while it was never really marketed in the US, it gained a fan base among guys who wanted to get their wives a dirt bike the ladies would be more comfortable on.
It’s a hit, and Sherpas are durable little buggers that ladies love like Cool James. Too bad they don’t really make it any more, and you are limited to finding someone who is willing to sell one. Mine came in a box and I had to rebuild it, which was worth every cent and hour invested.
A bonus with the Sherpa that seems to go unsung is the height adjustable rear spring. Akin to adjusting preload, it’s yet another reason the Sherpa shines as a smaller person bike. No need to upgrade to get it sized properly, because making it smaller was on the drawing board from day one.
Way back when, BMW was roundly criticized for the early R65 – deemed a girl bike because the frame was smaller and the bike was targeted to smaller riders. The smaller boxer was no help there. Thankfully, the Bavarians were not completely put off the small rider thing, and tried again with the old BMW single – it was designed with a smaller rider in mind. The target rider was a 170cm male weighing about 70kg. That is by any measure a small guy. It’s also a slightly tall lady. Sprung from the get-go for lighter riders, and sized from the get-go for shorter riders, it gets even lower when you equip it with factory low suspension. I had that, and eventually swapped for normal, because I’m a 167cm lady weighing 61kg. I have the preload set to mostly extended, because as I grow as a rider, it gets easier to ride a taller bike and it also gets more fun to enjoy the suspension travel.
I hope that other manufacturers will start to follow BMW’s and Kawasaki’s leads in the use of smaller target riders. There is no denying BMW’s command of frame design for maximum suspension flexibility – they seem to be able to kick out frames that fit anyone with simple suspension swaps. It’s kind of disappointing that Kawi hasn’t put much into the small rider market on the dirt side of late, however it’s clear they can do it.
Let’s bring the smaller target rider to the forefront, and start at the drawing board, instead of trying to patch it up after the fact.
Each year that I’ve returned to my bike after a winter off of it, I’ve reflected on what came back. Why stop now? I’m starting my fifth spring season and it’s a good thing.
This year’s little surprise is riding slow. Stupidly slow. Playing in traffic slow. I’m actually enjoying it. I’m finding that I am much more stable than I used to be at slower speeds. I’m staying upright and rolling ever so slowly in traffic jams, relaxing and enjoying the proverbial ride. It’s so different. I want to try a slow race, something that was not really on my radar in the past. I’m also finally using my knees to brake – clamping down on the faux tank to anchor myself when I get on the front lever. That is very cool. Somehow, my body is picking and choosing new techniques to remember and cement into my riding arsenal.
Getting my lean back last year was a big deal, and my neck and shoulder are still not really right. But they are no longer really interfering in my riding. I’m well along the learning curve for riding with whatever I’ve got for nerves now. I am self-balancing much more securely. The Leatt brace works – I have banged my helmet on it a few times now and I’m quite grateful for it. If you don’t have one yet, get one. There are a few competitors out there, choose the one that will work for you.
Another oddity is that I raised my seat 10mm. I ended up having to raise my handlebars 20mm (no 10mm risers to be found). I now sit on the bike instead of in it. When I had the low seat and the low suspension, I often felt like I was in the bike. Add my tower of tank bag, and I was really sandwiched in the frame. The ten millimeters shouldn’t make much of a difference, but somehow it does. I feel different on the bike, like I’m able to push it with my feet and legs more. This is empowering. I took off my tank bag two weeks back to get even more of this “on” feeling.
I’ve been bouncing my pre-load up regularly, which is adding the the height. I can still flatfoot the bike, but it’s sagged a bunch now to do so. Tripod-ing it is actually much easier with the seat up under my butt. I wish I would have understood this earlier – I’d have raised the bike a lot sooner. I love that I can just skim the tarmac with my boots now, instead of having to pull up my knees. There is no danger of dragging hard parts, set low, the angle was 45°, now it must be close to 60°. Balancing at stops is strangely easier. My head is solidly up over traffic and I can see for miles and miles and miles as the song goes.
I’ll be hoping for a cheap CBR250R this summer, which I will likely be looking to mod for track work. I miss that little sucker more and more every day, now that I’m living up in the clouds, up in GS Land. I get it, all over again.